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Philip Cole Visual Rhetoric and Multimodal Composition Dr. Wolff 5/6/14

Here is Your Garbage A Photographic Essay


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What we throw away doesn’t disappear; we only think it does. It kind of seems like a cliché when written, right? We’ve heard this a million times: “Be mindful of what you throw away.” However, perhaps that is precisely the problem—that we’re told but never shown. Sometimes, we need images to make sense of the words we hear. Perhaps they can be of use here in this photo essay. Trash kind of has its own alienating context. Inside of a landfill, a dumpster, or on the curb—each of these places put an imaginary frame around whatever items they contain, despite their condition or usefulness. It pushes our eyes away toward other objects. It says, There is nothing to see here. But outside of this strange and hypnotic context, what is ‘trash’ anyway? Are there any necessary conditions by which we deem something as ‘useless’ enough to erase it from our material lives? When was the exact moment that the pizza box in the dumpster became trash? Perhaps we worship the new, despite what resilience can exist in the old. These were my questions I kept in mind while taking these pictures. By showing viewers all of the trash they subconsciously push into the corners of their periphery every day, I hope that they might reconsider it and look at this trash in the same light that they might look at a new object on the shelf. Maybe then will we see the acts of consuming and disposing as fundamentally one in the same. Maybe then will the act of throwing something away seem like a much higher-stakes activity than they might originally give it. And maybe then will the rocking chair on the porch, the broom behind the refrigerator, and the palates in the basement gain a new value to us.


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Reflection When choosing what kind of camera I’d use for my Photo Essay Assignment, I was a bit overwhelmed by the possibilities. Vaseline on a lens? Disposable cameras? Once again, I was forced to consider the technological dimension of composition, and how it is tied to the quality and effect of what I create. I’d have to make a decision that wasn’t based off of mere convenience; I’d have to consider exactly what I was trying to capture, and let that inform my decision on what type of camera to use. When I decided on taking pictures of trash, I concluded that texture was a huge element that I’d want to capture. I wanted to show trash in shocking detail and texture—from the small pieces of glass blending into the sand, to the countless discarded items stacked in piles and heaps. To capture such detail, I concluded that a DSLR camera would best serve my needs. Using a Nikon D3100, I didn’t feel limited by the touchy focus of a camera phone, nor by the blurry, sharpness-lacking pictures from a disposable camera. Once I had the camera, I still needed to know what to look for. The landfill, of course, contained a lot of trash. This place was definitely the easiest site to gain material. All over the place were piles of trash—televisions, chairs, tires, glass, plastic, paper. It was grotesque to see trash in such volumes, and capturing it made a powerful punch for my photo essay. But the photos from this place alone only showed half of what I wanted to show about trash. I wanted to show garbage in more mundane, approachable contexts. I headed into Philadelphia the next weekend to take my last round of photographs. This was after our in-class workshop, so I had a fresh new set of questions and a sharpened critical sense to bring with me. When I got there, there were plenty of trash cans and dumpsters to choose from along with some construction sites with debris that would, as I presumed, get sent to a scrap yard—or perhaps even a similar landfill to the one I photographed the weekend before. It was all great, but I knew there had to be more, subtle


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things that I was missing. I was, after all, a member of my own audience; I needed to find the ‘waste’ that I and everyone else overlook. I started looking in smaller places—areas behind the dumpsters in back alleys, potholes, the open spaces in sewer drainages. I found that these smaller places contributed just as much as the epic, voluminous heaps I had been photographing prior. For instance, I walked past the soda can lodged in the sewer drainage bars several times before seeing meaningful and aesthetic value to it. First of all, the diagonal lines of the metal bars served as an aesthetically-pleasing background to the can, which was so perfectly lodged between them. It cried out its own meaning—trapped in a sort of unintentional net from the hidden, underground collection of disposed cans beneath it—an unwanted but inevitable result of our consumption and disposal habits. It was easy for me to manipulate them in Picasa after the fact. I scrupulously cropped every picture in my Photo Essay, but I also took some editing a bit further. I found that adding sharpness to some pictures intensified the texture. This came in handy for close-up pictures in particular, highlighting every little wear-crack in the shoes on page 16. Also, adding saturation to my pictures made them a lot more vivid, and even retracted the view from the textures to the colors and text as was effective in some cases. My picture of the “All Natural Clean” container on page 4, for instance, was a lot more dependent on the text on the container than each individual piece of trash behind it. So, by adding saturation to the photo, I shifted the focus to the larger, bolder text—highlighting the irony of the words “natural” and “clean” on a plastic container in a landfill. Finally, I feel that the soft focus tool in Picasa was fantastic—almost like a semiotic cheat code to bring the viewers’ focus to what I want them to see. In the picture wherein the bulldozer is pushing trash across a pile on page 5, I used the soft focus to direct the


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reader to the trash that is being pushed. Conveniently, this included an intact chair and what appears to be a suitcase. Now, the viewer can see the trash pile for its parts.


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Semiotic/Aesthetic Breakdown This photo of old sheets with wood beams and a pallet was among my favorite pictures I took. The contrast between the shadow and light on the trash in the center of the shot are not artificial, but I did exaggerate it a bit with the shadow took on Picasa. This picture, perhaps most apparently, demonstrates the use of the center and the margin. As Sean Hall states, “We tend to think of something placed in the center of a composition has having the importance and higher status. This is in contrast to those things placed on the margins, which tend to have less importance and lower status” (98). This is exactly what I was going for with this picture. As the light shines down the center of the picture and onto the trash pile, the viewer sees a clear juxtaposition to the rest of the picture to the left and right. In these margins, the dumpster and rest of the sidewalk are hidden behind shadow, ultimately diminishing their importance relative to the illuminated garbage. It did not get past me that the trash is placed in the center only in terms of left to right, not up and down. I left the photo this way because I wanted the light itself to have as much presence in the picture as does the trash it illuminates—particularly for its metonymous value. The middle section of light acts as a metonym, or something that uses “indexical relationships to create meanings” (56). In this case, the light’s metonymous value is based off of popular cultural knowledge of light (particularly isolated beams of


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light) being used in religious contexts to glorify holy figures—suggesting that the heavens are pointing to a particular person or thing as sacred or divine. I intended for it to follow from this metonymous value of light that the trash, by consequence of being lit by it, is also sacred or divine. My use of hyperbole here was intentional. By glorifying the trash to such an extent, I hoped that the viewer might, at the very least, place it outside of the ‘trash context’ and see it as potentially useful. In a purely aesthetic sense, this picture appeals to the “experimentation” as explained in the “10 Top Photography Composition Rules” webpage on Photography Mad. Now, I realize that the placement of the trash as it is in the picture violates the page’s “rule of thirds” in that it doesn’t run along any of the “imaginary” vertical or horizontal lines. However, I broke this rule intentionally with this photograph. I hoped—in an instance of pure experimentation—that the trash at the center and bottom with the beam of light beneath it would be more effective. With so much room on top of the trash, the light has enough room in the picture to make a stripe out of itself. This almost gives a slight sense of symmetry—even if only that there are equal parts of shadow to the left and right of the lighted section in the center.

Here is Your Garbage  

A photographic essay exploring what we throw away.

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